↓ Archives ↓

Archive → February, 2011

Report on the Preliminary Ancient Tea Horse Road Cultural Study Tour

“If you have health, a great craving for adventure, at least a moderate fortune, and can set your heart on a definite object, which old travellers do not think impracticable, then-travel by all means. If, in addition to these qualifications, you have scientific taste and knowledge, I believe that no career, in time of peace, can offer to you more advantages than that of a traveller.”

Francis Galton 1855 The Art of Travel.

Doug, myself and Chris posing in front of the majestic peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang. The caravans to Shangrila would have sometimes passed this way to reach Yak Meadow.

From 26th December 2010 to 8th January 2011 I joined historian Dr Doug Smith and journalist/artist extrodinaire Mr Chris Gill on a special ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Cultural Study Tour’. Our goal, amongst other things, was to map out a tentative itinerary for a study tour of the Yunnan section of the tea road. To this end we visited (in order) Shuhe, Lijiang, Shaxi, Xizhou, Dali, Puer, Ninger, and Yiwu. We inspected remnant road and bridges, attended one of China’s last vibrant mountain markets, interviewed Brian Linden at the Linden Center for Bai culture, visited an innovative tea factory preserving ancient traditions and forging new tea technology for the modern world in Ninger, and took a long and winding road trip to Yiwu where the production of Puer Tea, and by extension the tea road, all began well over a thousand years ago. You can see a map of the itinerary on Google Maps here and a selection of the images taken on this trip at my Flickr website here (some of the images were taken by Doug Smith).

Pollution and haze in Shanghai conspire to thwart the sun's rays and make sure that the 'East is Always Red'. Time to escape!

Doug performing his Santa duties for the kiddies in Shanghai.

Hoping to escape some of the Christmas madness now running rampant in metropolitan China I decided to rekindle my long dormant proposal to put together a special ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Cultural Study Tour’. This would require a preliminary trip to work out the itinerary and highlights. The emphasis of the tour, when it takes full and proper form, will be on the history, peoples, and cultural and natural heritage of the Yunnan section of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. I would put the tour firmly in the category of ‘cultural and educational tourism’. In this regard I’m inspired by the kind of cultural tours offered by Australians Studying Abroad and Odyssey Travel which both recognise that there is a large body of travellers who want something a bit different. This would not be the first such ‘tour’ to market itself under the banner of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. There are indeed quite a few such ‘tours’ already on the market. But a careful analysis of the itineraries reveals that 99% of them don’t really make much effort at cultural immersion and giving the participant a unique experience. One tour that does stand out is that offered by Wild China and is led by the formidable Canadian explorer of the tea road Mr Jeff Fuchs.  Jeff, who I have not yet had the pleasure of making acquaintance, has travelled the entire length of tea road (Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, with forays into Nepal as well). He has written an excellent account of his travels in the book The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers. At this stage I propose to limit the tour to Yunnan. There is enough within the provincial borders of Yunnan to keep us occupied for quite a long time and getting permits and so forth for Tibet is time consuming and costly. Tibet and Sichuan will have to placed on the backburner whilst I find the time and funds to undertake fieldwork in those locations myself before considering organising any such ‘tours’. I also hope that overtime that this ‘study tour’ can be integrated into an undergraduate/postgraduate teaching programme, either at The University of Western Australia (where I am currently based) or wherever it receives welcome and support.

The Party Members:

Besides myself the other two members of ‘the Party’ consisted of Mr Chris Gill and Dr Douglas Smith. Some brief introductions are in order for the uninitiated.

Doug and Chris enjoy the back seat of a local bus from Lijiang to Shaxi. Local transport is always our preferred option, a good way to save money and get close to the masses. You don't make much contact with the locals from behind the creature comforts of a four-wheel drive.

Mr Chris Gill: Chris, a long term resident in Shanghai, is also writing an article on the issue of cultural heritage and the tea road, so I was his personal adviser in this regard and set up a lot of interviews for him along the way. Chris and I were fellow classmates in 1992 at Renmin University of China (中国人民大学) and we have been firm friends and collaborators ever since. I taught Chris how to say ‘ashtray’ (烟灰缸) in Chinese, probably the most useful thing he has ever learnt! Chris is the China (and East/Southeast Asia) correspondent for the The Arts Newspaper, the world’s premier newspaper for art collectors, museum curators and cultural aficionados of all sorts, and also a well respected artist in his own right (see his Shanghai Eye website for more details) . Fair to say that Chris is the only foreign journalist specialised in reporting on the arts and culture with regards to China . And I must say, a damn fine travelling companion.

Dr Douglas Smith: Doug is an old classmate (老同学) and we go way back to the dawn of time (pineapples from the dawn of time, if you understand what that means, your in!). He is a legend in his own time. There is a thick book full of ‘doug stories’ in the Australian National Library (or at least there should be! I like story number 35). Doug is a well read historian with a strong interest in world history (and I should also note also steeped in the history of American blues/folk music, a passion we both share). He is currently based at Griffith University. We are currently working together on a paper or two on the topic of ‘Yunnan in World History’, so I was keen to have Doug join Chris and myself and gather some first hand impressions of the ancient trading network that physically made Yunnan’s often understated part in world history possible. Doug is no stranger to China, and especially not to Yunnan, but this was the first time he focused on the tea road and its history. In a former life Doug was also a professional photographer and he took some very good photographs on this trip. I’m pleased to report that on this trip he never fell over once (well at least not while we were in Yunnan)! Well done Doug!

Two women dressed in 'modern' Mosuo costume entice passers-by into a club in the 'bar strip' of Lijiang Old Town. Part of our mission was not only to uncover the past but to investigate how 'tradition' is being repackaged and reinvented for the purposes of the present.

The Itinerary:

The itinerary was determined by time and weather constraints. We didn’t visit Shangrila, for example, as it was way too cold at that time of year. But I think on a future study tour I would definitely include Shangrila. The ideal time for the tour would be sometime in September/October when the summer heat is just beginning to fade around Puer and Xishuangbanna but still in all its glory around Dali, Lijiang and Shangraila. We had little choice but to choose Christmas/New Year as it was the only time our paths could cross. Our itinerary on this exploratory trip was as follows:

Days 1 – 3: Shuhe (束河) and Lijiang Old Town (丽江古城) (Dayan 大研镇)

Days 4 – 6: Shaxi (沙溪)

Days 7 – 9: Xizhou (喜洲) and Dali Old Town (大理古城 )

Days: 10 – 13: Puer (普洱) and Ninger (宁洱)

Day 14: Yiwu (易武)

On top of Yak Meadow at 3,900 metres the air is a bit thin so it is wise to take it easy, as Doug and Chris are doing here.

Lijiang: We travelled from Shanghai to Lijiang. The ideal place to start a tea road study tour would be in Puer where the tea is grown and developed into tea cakes, and then follow the tea road all the way up to Shangrila. But in this instance seeing as I had a pile of stuff to dump in Lijiang in anticipation of returning for more fieldwork after the tour the ‘village’ of Shuhe, four kilometres from Lijiang Old Town, was our first port of call. I have written previously about Shuhe on this blog as it has become one of my field sites. See my comments and the interviews with two Shuhe farmers/muleteers here. Whilst in Lijiang we did the obligatory tea road duties and visited the museum in Shuhe, the diorama next to Black Dragon Pond Park (黑龙潭公园) and the obligatory pilgrimage to Joseph Rock’s former residence at Yuhu. We also interviewed Dr Latami and Mr Qiu Yuetang. I was also fortunate enough to meet Dr Pan Xiongyi from the local Lijiang Teachers Training College. Dr Pan hails from Dali (he is Han 汉) and has a passion for Naxi culture, especially the Dongba culture and regards himself as a modern day Dongba. I will be following up with him on this in the future. Latami comes from Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) and of the Mosuo (摩梭族) ethnic group. He is a dedicated and accomplished anthropologist, as well as song writer and photographer, and gave us a lot of insights into the importance of tea and tea ritual amongst the Mosuo. The Mosuo are one of China’s most fascinating ethnic minority groups who have a matrilineal/matriarchal family social structure and the famous ‘walking marriage’ system. For more on this visit Wikipedia here. Latami is keen for me to spend some time amongst the Mosuo and do a project on tea and tea culture and if the time is right I will be more than willing to oblige! It’s on my list of ‘things to do before I die’!

Mr Jie Fang (Mu Ga), a dedicated follower and promoter of Chinese tea culture.

Mr Jie Fang (解方) is of Yi (彝族) extraction and his hometown is in Yuanyang, Honghe Prefecture, at the site of the famous rice terraces (梯田), a very long way from Lijiang. His Yi name is Mu Ga (木嘎). Mu Ga is now well established in the tea business and has made Lijiang his base of operations where he has established the Qiuyuetang (秋月堂) brand. In addition to producing his own brand of high quality puer tea he also runs a very successful tea house just outside of the old town. The story of how he went down the ‘tea business’ path and later, as he explains, to regard himself as in the ‘tea culture industry’, is quite insightful and I have recorded a detailed interview which I hope to have up on the blog in the near future. Mu Ga, working closely with his wife who is an expert in the tea ritual, has done quite a bit to promote tea culture and to build up trust around the tea business (there are a lot of shoddy merchants and fake tea cakes out there people!). Their’s is a good example of the tea road of the 21st century and an important part of my own research. Whilst visiting Mu Ga we of course sampled some very fine teas. He has purposely distanced his tea from any association with the Ancient Tea Horse Road precisely because he fears that unscrupulous types will make fakes and ruin his reputation. He gave many insights into the trials and tribulations of developing a trustworthy tea market in contemporary China and I have subsequently conducted an extensive interview which I hope to have up on the blog soon.

Ah Zhi (啊芝) hails from Xiao Liangshan (小凉山) and is from the Yi (彝族) ethnic group. She is a first rate tea ritual expert and works at Mu Ga's teahouse.

Shaxi: From Lijiang we made our way to Shaxi. I have visited Shaxi before and you can read about that initial visit here. It is one of the more well preserved tea road staging posts situated in a picturesque valley/basin occupied primarily by the Bai people (白族). We stayed in the restored caravan sari (caravan inn, 马店), the Lao Ma Dian (老马店) and had a New Year’s dinner with the owner Ah Fang. Ah Fang is a Taiwanese designer and entrepreneur who has done quite a lot to promote ethical and sustainable tourism in Shaxi and Shangrila (where she also operates a small hotel in the old town). She has the ear of the local government and has been somewhat influential in shaping the style of tourism development in and around Shaxi. Her philosophy is something along the lines of ‘small is beautiful’ and I totally concur – Shaxi is not the place to develop mass commercial tourism, it would be totally ruined, leave that for Lijiang. Ah Fang gave us some good insights into issues of cultural heritage and tourism development in Shaxi and I hope to interview her in more depth in the future.

Picnicking with local Bai women next to an ancient arched bridge on the old tea road in Shaxi.

Actually at this point I got rather ill and was out of action for a day and a bit. Before I got ill however we did have a great day tracking down some nearby sections of the tea road and came across an ancient arched bridge next to which some local Bai women were having an impromptu picnic, and we were of course invited to join them! The people in Shaxi are truly generous and hospitable. Everywhere we went they were always offering us something, usually food, and not expecting anything in return. Quite a unique tourist experience where these days locals in highly commercialised tourist sites always want something from you … usually money! At one point we wandered into a relatively isolated farmhouse to get some boiled water. No problem! Welcome! And we sat there for some time as the owners of the house continued their farmhouse renovations. They didn’t mind one bit. 谢谢!

Yi women at the Shaxi market.

Donkeys for sale at the Shaxi market.

On the Friday we inspected the local Shaxi market, one of the more colourful traditional-style markets where people from the nearby hills, mainly Bai but also including many Yi people (the women coming down to market in very colourful dresses). I had to excuse myself after a few hours and have a lie down and it was during my absence that Chris lost his camera. See what happens when the adults aren’t around! My illness also prevented me from making acquaintance with a certain Mr Yang from the Shaxi Cultural Center, but I hope to rectify this in the future as his centre looks quite interesting. I did take the chance to catch up with ‘San Ge’ (三哥), a famous local butcher and muleteer who accompanied myself and a team tea road enthusiasts on a exploratory trek from Shaxi to Laojun Mountain (老君山). He offered to take us up the nearby hills with a small mule team but due to illness and the uncertain physical shape of some of the participants we could not take up the invitation. In the proposed tea road cultural study tour I would certainly include a day or two with an authentic mule team, hopefully with a night or two camping out under the stars to get a sense of what life was like for the muleteers in times past (not of course without some of our more modern creature comforts!).

Xizhou: From Shaxi we made our way, via public bus I should note, to the town of Xizhou. Xizhou is about ten kilometres from Dali Old Town and is situated close to the shores of Erhai Lake. Xizhou has historically been an important commercial centre on the tea road, producing many famous and prosperous merchants. As a consequence of this wealth there are many beautiful Bai style mansions in Xizhou, some which date back hundreds of years. Fortunately many are still standing although they are not all in good condition. Our primary purpose in Xizhou was to visit the Linden Centre and interview Brian Linden. The Linden Centre occupies a restored Bai style mansion and now functions as a very innovative and impressive cultural centre. Brian and his family have invested much blood, sweat and tears into the Center and the efforts have paid off. The local government authorities have come to acknowledge the model they have created for cultural heritage tourism and the Lindens are actively involved in the resotration and cultural heritage preservation in and around Xizhou. Quite a remarkable achievement. Hopefully I will get back to Xizhou to observe and interview in more detail. I think there will be some good opportunities for our students also to work as interns at the Center and we may have our first intern in the pipeline (go Sophie!).

Brian Linden taking visitors to the Linden Center on a special guided tour of Xizhou's historic homes.

From Xizhou we went to nearby Dali Old Town, just for a day or two to recuperate and get a feel for one of the most important staging posts and political/cultural centres on the ancient tea road. Dali is situated at the crossroads: go north and the road takes you to Lijiang, Shangrila and Tibet; go west and the road takes you to Baoshan, Tengchong, Ruili and Myanmar; go east and the road takes you to Sichuan; and go south and you will pretty soon find yourself in Kunming, and by a somewhat different route, in Puer itself. Dali is home to the largest festival and horse market along the tea road, the Third Month Street Festival which I have visited and written about here. Although Dali has become quite commercialised it is not quite as ‘over the top’ as Lijiang and still has some pleasant nooks and crannys where you can soak up the atmosphere and get a sense of what life used to be like.

On the remnant ancient road just outside of Ninger.

Mr Tai Junlin at his tea factory in Ninger.

Puer and Ninger: From Dali we made our way to Puer. To do this and save time we took a flight from Dali to Jinghong (prefectural seat of Xishuangbanna) and from Jinghong we took another local bus to Puer. The combination of air travel and expressways is very impressive in China these days, even in Yunnan. Only a few years ago a trip from Dali to Puer would have taken days, our trip took about eight hours. I have visited Puer and Ninger before and you can read about that visit here and here. In Puer the goal was to investigate the origins of the tea road and come to grips with the tea business, past, present and future. So to this end, in addition to visiting the tea markets, through contacts in Kunming, I arranged a visit to a tea factory in nearby Ninger. The tea factory owner, Mr Tai Junlin, is a true gentleman and was very generous with his time. He took us to some very well preserved ancient road just outside of Ninger (in the old days Ninger, which used to be called Puer, was the prefectural seat of imperial power). He also gave us a detailed tour of his puer tea factory and introduced us to his range of tea cakes and his new line of ‘puer tea bags’. He has a range of tea cakes which use completely traditional methods of fermentation and processing, including the use of special stones which are placed on the tea cakes to compress them (with the assistance of human weight to get the job done). The ‘pressed puer tea bags’, which he has labeled as ‘Puer Kiss’ (website only available in Chinese) for some reason, are quite an amazing achievement and I think if marketed correctly could become a bit hit across China and abroad. They make the ritual of brewing good quality puer much easier. We were also intending to visit some more remote locations aroudn Puer and track down some of the ancient tea trees but time was running short, but I think seeing an ancient tea tree would be obligatory and even better still to witness some of the special ceremonies by the Ha’ni (哈尼族) and Bulang (布朗族) peoples in paying homage to the tea tree spirits.

Wrapping tea cakes the traditional way with dried bamboo leaves.

Mr Zhou and son share their homemade puer tea with us in historic Yiwu.

Yiwu: Whilst we were with Mr Tai he recommended we visit the village of Yiwu in neighbouring Xishuangbanna. Yiwu historically was very famous for its puer tea and some claim that it should rightfully hold the honour as the source of puer tea itself. Whatever the case may be puer production actually came to a halt in Yiwu some time during the trials and trevails of the 20th century. It was only through the entrepreneurial efforts of Mr Tai and his associates that it was revived. In the early 1990s Mr Tai went to Yiwu with the purpose of reestablishing puer production and informed us that he had to basically reinstruct the locals on how to do it! His efforts were rewarded and within a few short years many other tea entrepreneurs joined him in opening the Yiwu market. All of this was happening at the time of puer boom, which finally burst in 2007. Despite the bursting bubble Yiwu seems to being doing reasonably well and we spent some quality time with a local family in their ancestral Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) house. We chatted about past, present and future all over good cups of local brew.

Although there is now a, very winding, sealed road to Yiwu it still remains relatively inaccessible. But before the sealed road I can readily imagine how isolated Yiwu was and how incredibly difficult it must have been to get the tea out of Yiwu and up to Puer. I’m not sure if any remnant road still exists in the area. Down at Yiwu the forest is subtropical and we all know how quickly such forests can claim back any discarded elements from so-called human civilisation. Oh well, another mystery waiting to be solved! I know that there is at least one Hui (回族Chinese Muslim) village in the vicinity where they have adopted local Dai (傣族) dress and speech. The presence of the Hui, the great traders and muleteers up and down the length and breadth of the tea road, is a reminder of the comings and goings of peoples in this area and the importance of trade.

A sample of Mr Zhou's fine puer tea.

All in all the preliminary ‘study tour’ was quite successful. Chris got some good material for his article. Doug has a better sense of the historical dimensions of the tea road within Yunnan and beyond. I mapped out a basic itinerary for a possibly more sophisticated ‘study tour’. I also did some interviews and made some new contacts. In this field work business you can push it too hard. It takes time and effort to meet people, to build up trust and friendships. I don’t like the ‘fly in and fly out’ operators who come down gather data, disappear and are never seen by the locals again. That’s not my way of doing things. A deep ethnography takes time, many many years in fact. It is hard to justify this approach in this day and age of continuous deadlines and the push towards making universities into teaching and research factories. But the most valuable thing I learned from this trip was to ‘slow down’. When you meet friends, old and new, in Yunnan and sit down in front of the tea table and the host begins to the tea ritual you know nothing is going to be rushed. This is the way they have done business for centuries and the relaxed attitude is highly commendable. As with the ‘slow food’ movements that have emerged in recent years, I think it is high time for a ‘tea revolution’, but not an impetuous style uprising with everyone in a fluster. Rather the ‘tea revolution’ I propose here involves taking back what rightfully belongs to us … our time. I will have more to share with you on this subject in the near future comrades! Stay tuned!

Amongst the tea fields at Ninger right adjacent to the ancient tea road.

Interview with Shuhe Muleteers

A 'typical' street in Shuhe. Working out what is 'new' and what is 'old' can be tricky at the best of times.

In October 2010 I travelled with Ed and Yang Xiao from Shuhe to Shangrila exploring the Ancient Tea Horse Road. You can read about that expedition here (in three installments). I took the opportunity to interview the muleteers from Shuhe (束河), who I will refer to as Lao Yang and Xiao He, that accompanied us on the first leg of the journey from Shuhe to Daju (four days). Shuhe is a collection of Naxi (纳西) villages about four kilometres from the ‘old town’ of Lijiang (which the locals still refer to as ‘Dayan’ 大研镇). Shuhe is also part of the UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site in Lijiang, so it obviously has quite important tangible and intangible cultural heritage worthy of preserving. Over the last ten or so years, like the old town of Lijiang, Shuhe has undergone a remarkable transformation from bucolic village/s to rapidly growing commercial tourist centre. Some would argue that this conflicts somewhat with the cultural heritage preservation work insofar as mass commercial tourism and cultural heritage do not make good bedfellows. As this topic is an ongoing focus of my research and still in relatively early stages I will not say any more here, at least for the time being. You can read some preliminary thoughts on the matter in an article I published in 2010 in the International of Journal China Studies. Historically Shuhe is well known as an important staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Like Dayan it too has an ancient market square, although recent expansion of the square and the building of a new larger square to accommodate tourist activities leads to all kinds of confusion and misconceptions as to what is real and what is fake, another perennial topic of heated debate and part and parcel of tourism modernity. In days gone Shuhe by was highly regarded as a centre for the manufacture of all kinds of leather goods. The cobblers of Shuhe were indeed famous the length and breadth of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Tibetans in particular highly prized the leather boots and horse gear made in Shuhe. All of this is well recorded in the local ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ museum  and I advise all visitors to Shuhe to make the pilgrimage.

Local Naxi dressed in Tibetan garb do a Tibetan folk dance in the 'real' market square of Shuhe.

A local farmer in the guise of traditional muleteer leads his horse through the streets of Shuhe seeking tourists for a once in a lifetime equine experience on the tea road.

Lao Yang and Xiao He come from a village just outside the main commercial tourist centre of Shuhe and both families are still engaged in agriculture. Their farming days, however, may be numbered as land in and around Shuhe is in short supply and I believe their farmland may be ‘requisitioned’ by the authorities and sold to commercial developers. It is therefore quite valuable to be able to observe the process of urbanisation right before your very eyes. As I discovered on my journey with Lao Yang and Xiao He, and on subsequent visits, it is not only the rural traditions and ways of life that are disappearing. Whilst Shuhe may once have been renowned as a staging post and its muleteers held in high esteem these days the equine skills of the locals are largely restricted to breeding horses for the purposes of offering rides for tourists. This has actually led to the gradual decline in the numbers of ‘dian horses’ (滇马) as these small horses, as sure footed and reliable as they are for long distance caravan work, are not highly valued by tourists as mounts. (Note: ‘Dian’ is another way of referring to ‘Yunnan’ and refers both to the large lake next to Kunming (the provincial capital) and also the ancient culture/kingdom that arose in the region approximately 2,500 years ago). The breeding of mules has now more or less come to an end in Shuhe. Mules, an equine hybrid combining donkey and horse, where in fact the mainstay on the Ancient Tea Horse Road, but with the demise of the caravans it seems inevitable that in places like Shuhe the mule is now more part of local memory than present reality. As the interview reveals the journey was also quite a trial for both of them. It was very hard going and much of the former muleteering knowledge, such as how to effectively strap the loads onto the horses, was a bit rusty to say the least.

I recently (January 2011) returned to visit Lao Yang and was caught up in the sudden rush to process the dried corn for storage before the onset of rain. You never know what is going to happen out in the field but I was quite happy to play 'farmer' for an afternoon (actually more like 'farmer's wife' as Lao Yang insisted I wear his wife's hat so as not to get cold).

Lao Yang on steed feeling very good about himself. Maybe it has something to do with the mountain looming up out of the clouds or perhaps just the boardshorts.

I’m particularly fond of Lao Yang, he is quite a character. I’ll never forget the moment when half way up the ascent to Yak Meadow (牦牛坪, an important pasture and campsite for caravans in the past) changed his bland trousers for colourful boardshorts! And also the special moment in the majestic presence of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) where he suddenly mounted his horse and went into a long and excited speech about how proud his ancestors would be to know he was, like them, journeying on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. There is also so much to learn from a chap like Lao Yang as he is a wealth of information and knowledge about the region and its popular history. He spent much of his youth in the mountains searching for medicinal plants and to this day occasionally makes the journey to search out for special medicinal products for family, friends and long valued clients (some from as far away as Shanghai who, in the age of the mobile phone, send text messages with special requests). On our expedition he was constantly gathering mushrooms and wild berries and he would have spent much of the time climbing trees to get at them if it wasn’t for the time constraints.

The wild berries find that that are not safe with Lao Yang nearby.

A good juxtaposition of the new and old breed of horses. Quite a difference in size which on narrow and steep mountain trails is not without consequences.

The interview took place on the side of a boggy slope where we camped for the night after a grueling descent from Yak Meadow. Everyone was tired and miserable, and a bit wet, and I think Xiao He was having serious second thoughts about the entire undertaking. Xiao He was ostensibly the ‘Chief Muleteer’ (马锅头) but was finding the job extremely frustrating and difficult especially when Yang Xiao had to keep intervening to make sure the loads were strapped properly. Lao Yang was also a bit fatigued but still quite enthusiastic. He tells me that if given the opportunity he would do it all over again. Xiao He has said that muleteering is no longer in his blood and he prefers the civilised comforts of modern life – he’s quite content to lead the tourists around Shuhe and let them imagine their on the ‘real’ tea road. I would like to thank Deng Shumei (邓树梅) for transcribing the interview into Chinese characters and to Sarah Stanton for her excellent Chinese to English translation. There is still another interview with an old muleteer from Haba Village in the pipeline (Sarah?) and also a special interview with Ed and Yang Xiao that gives some insights into what they are attempting to achieve with their work. So please stay tuned!

The interview:

Gary: 今天特别辛苦啊。Today was pretty hard-going.

老杨:很辛苦, 但是收获也有:我们走老路,所有好看的,很多人看不到的东西, 我们都看到了。成千上万的人游览丽江,但是他们都看不到今天我们所看到的东西。

Lao Yang: Yes, but not without reward: in travelling along this ancient and beautiful road we have seen things many people will never see. So many people travel to Lijiang, but so few of them go out of their way to see the kinds of things we have seen today.

Gary: 你感觉怎么样?Did you enjoy yourself?

老杨:这样的感受, 对我们来说也是很好的, 但是对大多数人来说,包括纳西族, 他们认为这样太累了。但是我认为这样做可以锻炼自己的身体和意志。也看见了大好河山。丽江最高的那个山,今天我们爬了差不多4000米。而且今天我们走了比茶马古道还难走的路。

Lao Yang: Yes, I thought it was an amazing experience, although I know that most people, even the Naxi (纳西), would find it exhausting. But I think this is an excellent way to exercise my body and test my willpower, as well as an opportunity to see some truly beautiful scenery. Today we climbed Lijiang’s highest mountain [referring to the high pass not the peak], nearly 4,000 metres in height, as well as hiking in areas even rougher than the Ancient Tea Horse Road.

Gary: 说说你家的背景。Tell me a little about your family’s background.

老杨:从坟墓的历史记录来看,我们家住在束河有八,九代人了。明,清朝之前,纳西族人死后,直接埋葬遗体。清朝后,纳西族人死后, 是火化遗体,之后把骨灰放到火盆里或罐子里,再把他们埋了。明朝以前,束河人挖了一个古墓,就是把死人都埋在一起。

Lao Yang: From records on local tombs we know that our family has lived in Shuhe for eight or nine generations. Before the Ming [1368-1644] and Qing [1644-1911] dynasties, the Naxi simply buried their dead; following the Qing dynasty, the body was cremated and the ashes buried in a brazier or pot. The residents of Shuhe have also uncovered a pre-Ming communal tomb with several bodies interred together.

Gary: 你们家以前是做什么的?Tell me what kind of careers your ancestors held?

老杨:49年以前, 我爷爷的父亲,也就是我的祖父,说我爷爷有五个兄弟。我们纳西话ataimo,是对女性的尊称;amo是对男性的尊称。我们是父系,就是以父亲为主。我的奶奶,母亲和媳妇都是束河人。我的祖父,爷爷和父亲都是皮匠。他们在香格里拉,一个专门的纳西族村里缝制藏族的服饰和牦牛身上的疙瘩,就是今天的口袋。我父亲在香格里拉出生。他们也就住在中甸,用各种皮子手工制做服饰,靴子卖给藏族,因为他们不会做这些。我们和藏族是兄弟关系,也像他们的师傅。

Lao Yang: Before 1949, my great-grandfather, also known as my zufu or what we would call my amo, said my grandfather had five brothers. The Naxi word ataimo is a respectful name for a woman; amo is the equivalent for a man. We are a patrilineal people—that is to say, power in our society lies with the men. My paternal grandmother, mother and daughters-in-law are all from the Shuhe. My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all cobblers. In a Naxi village in Shangrila [Shangrila County] they sewed traditional Tibetan costumes. My father was born in Shangrila and lived and worked in Zhongdian [former place name for Shangrila, Gyalthang in Tibetan], where he hand-made fur clothing and boots to sell to the Tibetans, who could not make these items themselves. We regard the Tibetans as our brothers, and see ourselves as being mentors to them.

Gary: 那你们家在中甸还有亲戚吗?Do you still have relatives living in Shangrila?

老杨:有的。我们家族的也还有在那儿的。Yes, we still have extended relatives living there.

Gary: 你小时候有没有住在中甸?But you yourself did not grow up there, is that correct?

老杨:没有。我父亲47年就从中甸回束河了。回来后,48年就带领藏族骑壁队,参加游击队。丽江原来有13个县,有各自的游击队。后来都改编成中国人民解放军。改编成中国人民解放军后,我父亲请假回来, 就没有回去因为家里有他的爷爷,父亲没有人照顾。我祖父的兄弟,就是我爷爷的叔叔,也就是我的二祖父,是丽江最大的一个寺庙的第二主持人。他学了9年的藏族文化。我家二爷爷后来成为他的徒弟。我二爷爷是明国元年出生的,就是1912。1916年去了西藏。60年代回丽江因为那时中国不允许宗教信仰自由。

Lao Yang: No, I didn’t–my father returned from Shangrila to Shuhe in 1947. In 1948 he led a cavalry squadron and was part of a local guerrilla band. Lijiang originally had thirteen counties, each of which had its own guerrilla force. But after these bands were assimilated into the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, my father took leave from the army and did not return. As his own father was in charge of the household at Shangrila, he was not required to support or otherwise maintain the family there. My amo’s brother—my grandfather’s uncle, and also my second amo, is administrator for Lijiang’s biggest temple and has studied Tibetan culture for nine years. Afterwards, my second grandfather [grandfather’s brother] became his apprentice. My second grandfather was born in the first year of the Republic of China—1912. He went to Tibet in 1916 but returned to Lijiang in the 1960s because the Chinese government did not permit religious freedom at the time.

Gary: 你家也是束河的吗?你在束河很长时间了吗?So your family is also in Shuhe? How long have you been living there?

老杨:我是白沙的。I am from Baisha [Baisha is a cluster of villages not far from Shuhe. Baisha was once the centre of political power in the Lijiang basin and the home town of the Mu family clan].

Gary: 以前赶马帮是不是非常辛苦?Caravanning was a very difficult job in those days, wasn’t it?

老杨:是,可能半年不在家因为是从丽江走到西藏要三个月,三个月到了西藏, 休整几天, 把东西销售在那里, 再把那里的东西运回来。我家二爷爷是丽江最大的一个马帮的马哥头。就是明国时期,也就是洛克在丽江的时候, 我爷爷负责的那个马帮是最大的一个,但不是他的马帮,是帮别人管理的。那个马帮有三百多匹马。我二爷爷是马哥头。他有支配权:在路上,他要负责花多少钱买多少草,多少料,在哪里睡觉。我二爷爷是帮赖家赶马帮的。在丽江,雪,王,李,赖四大家族的马帮是最大的。在从丽江到西藏的路上,没有人敢抢他们的东西。即使土匪抢了他们的东西,他们也要把东西拿回来。

Lao Yang: Yes, you would be away from home for maybe half a year at a time! The journey between Lijiang and Tibet takes three months, you see. Once you arrived in Tibet, you would rest for a few days and sell the wares you had brought with you. Then you would head back west, loaded up with Tibetan produce. My family’s second grandfather was Lijiang’s biggest caravan master.  This was around the time the Republic of China was formed [1911], and also when Joseph Rock [Austrian-American botanist, explorer and scholar known as the ‘father of Naxi studies’] visited Lijiang. My second grandfather ran the biggest caravan, but it wasn’t his own; he was simply managing it for others. This caravan had over three hundred horses, with my second grandfather at its head. He had authority over the entire operation—any decisions regarding the purchase of hay and grain were his responsibility, as were the decisions on when and where to make camp and rest. In Lijiang, the four big families—Xue, Wang, Li and and Lai—had the largest caravans. On the road between Lijiang and Tibet, nobody dared to rob them. Even if they were attacked by bandits, they were usually able to protect their goods.

Gary: 那四个家族现在还在吗?Are those four families still around?


Lao Yang: Xue, Li and Lai are. But I’m not sure what they are doing these days. Most of their property was confiscated during the forming of the People’s Republic of China.

Gary: 以前他们可能是地主,大地主。But before that they were large property owners?


Lao Yang: I believe so. Back then we used hempen rugs brought back by the caravanners from Tibet to cover our bedclothes. These were woven in the style of the time—that is to say, in horizontal straight lines. We had locally made rugs too, of course, but the Tibetan ones were made of better materials.

Gary: 以前就是马帮把本地的东西运到西藏, 在把西藏的东西买回丽江卖。So back then, the caravanners would take goods from Lijiang to Tibet, and then return to Lijiang with goods they had bought in Tibet to sell.

老杨:除了地毯还有很多东西。还有印度的东西:印度当时做的水果糖,一种叫黄十字的香烟。Yes. They brought back many things apart from the rugs. Indian goods, for instance; Indian fruit candy, and a brand of cigarettes called Yellow Cross.

Gary: 今天我看见你骑着马很潇洒, 是不是?I noticed today that you are a very skilled and natural horserider.

老杨:我们也是苦中有乐。Well, you know what they say—there’s joy in adversity!

Gary: 他们现在这次是来探路因为大家都不熟悉这条路。So today was an attempt at pathfinding, because you’re not too familiar with this road.

小何:昨天走的那条路太不好走了。没法走,真的。Yes, the path we chose yesterday was far too rough. There was no way we could use it.

老杨:今天走到了最高的地方,看到了好风景。And today we’ve arrived at the highest point and can observe the local scenery.

小何:这几天特别的心情不好。Morale has been low these last few days.

老杨:因为我们的心情跟你们的有点不一样。我们怕我们的马出问题。马是我们谋生的工具。怕他们出问题, 钱是一小点。

Lao Yang: Because we have to concern ourselves with things you don’t worry about. We were anxious that there could be a problem with the horses. Horses are our livelihood! If anything were to happen to them, we would no longer be able to earn money. [Lao Yang and Xiao He offer horse rides to tourists in Shuhe].


Lao Yang: Yes, horses are our livelihood. We are always afraid of them dying; if we cannot buy another horse that will cause problems for us. So of course we are nervous. I think most people would no longer dare to attempt this road—it would be too rough on them. People’s living standards have improved so much since the old days; they don’t have any incentive to hike on rough roads like these. They think hard work damages the body and mind. Even my friends call me up from time to time and ask me what I think I’m achieving, putting myself through this!

Gary: 你觉得呢?Do you agree with them?

老杨:我不觉得的。我觉得走这条路很好。我以前走了很多路:走到西藏,过了草地,也过了雪山,但是是20,30年以前的事了。现在再走一次这条路也还可以。我们也要学习一下你们澳大利亚那个70多岁的老人。他都不说辛苦, 我们说辛苦还早着呢因为我差不多48岁,比他小二十多岁。二十几年后,我们不一定能像他一样能走这条路了。经历了困苦,在遇到困难也不怕了。没有经历磨难,骄生惯养,遇见困难时就不知所措了。所以经历一些辛苦,困难,经历一下心跳也是很好的;磨练一下自己的意志。

Lao Yang: No, I don’t. I love travelling along this old road. I did a lot of trekking in my youth—and not just to Tibet, but also to the grasslands and the snowfields up in the mountains. But that was twenty or thirty years ago. Now, hiking on a road like this is just fine. We should take a leaf out of that old Canadian man’s book. He’s not complained of tiredness even once, and we have felt our own exhaustion all the more keenly because of it. I’m nearly forty-eight, more than twenty years younger than him—I’m not sure that I’d be able to hike this sort of terrain when I got to his age. It’s been just as hard on him as us, but he’s faced it unafraid. And I think that if you never experience hardship in your life you will be proud and spoiled, and when you do finally encounter difficulties or problems you will not know what to do. So it is good to experience a little hardship, a little difficulty, a little fear—it will only make you more determined.

Gary: 你觉得茶马古道遗产怎么样?如果其消失了,你觉得可惜吗?What about the legacy of the Ancient Tea Horse Road? How would you feel if it were to disappear?


Lao Yang: It would be such a shame. Our previous generation travelled this road, as we did in our time; and now here we are, travelling it again. Unfortunately, my first time wasn’t of much use, since I was a farmer and didn’t have any way of recording my journey. This time we have a greater knowledge base and the ability to record what we experience here.

小何:现在在束河牵马的人可以说是只有我们两个在走茶马古道了。其他说走茶马古道都是骗人的。We are the only two horse riders at Shuhe who still travel on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is lying to you.


Lao Yang: Not that we’re calling all of the horse riders in Shuhe liars! But it’s true that none of them have really travelled the Ancient Tea Horse Road. They go to the parts of Shuhe which have beautiful scenery, or areas of cultural significance; they go to see old houses or lakes and rivers; after all, Shuhe and its surroundings are very beautiful. Both Shuhe and the Ancient Tea Horse Road have several thousand years of history.

Gary: 以后还走不走茶马古道?Do you think you will continue travelling on the Ancient Tea Horse Road?

老杨:肯定走嘛!但是要走茶马古道的话,我就不养这些大马了。我就改养小马。养个滇马。Of course! Though if we want to take it seriously, we should stop raising these large horses, and switch to raising dian horses [‘Dian’ is another term for ‘Yunnan’].

Gary: 所以养滇池马有好处嘛。So Dianchi horses have their advantages.


Lao Yang: Some people [referring to the tourists] like big horses; they say the dian horses are too small. But I think the best horse riders like small horses, although of course that’s not true all of the time. Tall men do not necessarily like big horses; short men and women do not necessarily like small horses. There are plenty of people who only want to ride a horse once, for the experience. If we’re talking people about our age, they’ll want to ride a big horse, right? The horse-holders usually ask 20 kuai, even though most tourists would pay twice that much. That’s just how tourists are. But timid young girls won’t ride big horses.

Gary: 走茶马古道还是骑小马,滇池马啊。But small horses, these dian horses, are better for riding on the Ancient Tea Horse Road?


Gary: 现在你们家不养骡子了,是不是?Your family also rears mules, correct?

老杨:没有养了。No, not anymore.

小何:以前我养骡子。七,八年前,我养过。但是有骑马的游客后,我就不养骡子了。有些小女孩知道是骡子,有的就哭起来了因为骡子很倔强(不听话)。在束河,我算是较早养马的人了。We used to, maybe seven or eight years ago. But when tourists arrived wanting to ride horses, we stopped. Some girls would recognise their mount as a mule, and some would start crying because mules are stubborn and won’t take orders. I was actually one of the first people in Shuhe to turn to raising horses.

Gary: 现在养骡子没有什么商业,是不是?But now there’s not much profit to be had from raising mules, is that it?


Lao Yang: Before Shuhe opened up, my family raised mares and bred mules from them. We continued for more than ten years, maybe even twenty years. We would have one mule born every year. Lijiang has a mule trade fair, so we could go and sell our mules there.

Gary: 那交易会是不是一年有一次,还是有几次?Is this mule trade fair a once a year event, or does it take place several times a year?

老杨:一年有两次,3月份一次,7月份一次。It takes place twice a year, once in March and once in July.

Gary: 像大理的三月街。Sounds like Dali’s Third Month Street Festival. [See my report on the famous Dali Third Month Street Festival here].


Lao Yang: A little, but the main purpose of that festival is for the purchase and selling of goods; our trade fair is specifically for mules. Lijiang’s mule and horse trade fairs are organised by the local farmers and are very widespread. They were even around in Locke’s time, although they’re slowly disappearing now. There isn’t the interest there once was.